How a piece of the human brain survived for 2,600 years

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A man was beheaded near the present city of York (United Kingdom) 2600 years ago. The reasons are unknown, but his head - just his head - was quickly buried in soil rich in clay. And there stayed until 2008, when the York Archaeological Trust researchers found the skull. As he studied it, the surprise appeared: a piece of what looked like the human brain was inside. A very rare discovery, because it is one of the organs that degrades first after death. How was it possible?


Initial studies have shown that he is the head of a man between the ages of 26 and 45. The cause of death cannot be known with certainty, but they found evidence of a blow to the vertebrae of the neck and evidence that they then cut his neck with a small, sharp knife.

For its part, said Brain of Heslington (for the city where they found it) presented its characteristic folds and furrows, something very strange, because it did not keep other remains which, a priori, resisted better the passage time, such as skin, meat or hair. Rather, fat and protein from brain tissue come together to form a mass of large, complex molecules. This resulted in the contraction of the brain - an 80% smaller than it was when I was alive - but also in the conservation of its shape and many microscopic characteristics that are found only in brain tissue .


Heslington's brain. - Axel Petzold
The recent study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, conducted new tests finding that two structural proteins, which act like the “skeletons” of neurons and astrocytes, were tighter in the brain, York Comparing for a In the composition of Heslington's brain with that of a recently deceased subject, they found that the aggregated proteins of the subject who lived six centuries BC were more stable than those of modern brains. In fact, the old protein groups may have helped preserve the structure of soft tissue for centuries, according to the researchers.

Why did the decomposition stop?
The fact that these proteins have not followed the normal course of degradation raises a new unknown. The researchers point out that perhaps an external element intervened in decomposition. "Combined, the data suggests that proteases from the old brain could have been inhibited by an unknown compound that had spread or from outside the brain to the deepest structures," they said in the study. In other words, there was nothing particularly special about this organ, but that something in between I could have stopped the chemical processes that would normally break down these proteins, at least long enough for them to cluster together more robust.

We probably never know the specific cause, but these findings may help us better understand the development of brain aging and the diseases that affect these proteins, such as Alzheimer's disease. Thus, the new discoveries could help researchers collect information on proteins from other old tissues from which DNA cannot easily recover.

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